Publication Date: Wednesday Dec 9, 1998
The mysterious Peter CouttsWho was the shadowy Frenchman who quickly spread his wealth upon arriving in Palo Alto, only to suddenly disappear?
by Steve Staiger
Peter Coutts, as the Frenchman was known to his Mayfield neighbors, is one of the true legends of Palo Alto's history. He arrived in the area with great wealth, spent it freely and then suddenly and somewhat mysteriously left California to return to his native soil. For more than 40 years after his 1882 departure, the true story remained untold. A granddaughter in the 1920s finally revealed the real story and his real name, Jean Baptiste Paulin Caperon.
The story begins with the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and France's ceding of Alsace-Lorraine to the Prussians following their defeat. Peter Coutts (as we shall call him) was a French financier whose bank had invested a large sum in a business venture in Alsace-Lorraine before the war. The loss of the war and the territory bankrupted the investment.
Facing financial and legal difficulties, Coutts fled France for Switzerland, where he was given the documents of a recently deceased cousin named Peter Coutts. Using the documents, he left Europe, arriving in the Santa Clara Valley in 1874.
Finding Mayfield's climate and fertile soil to his liking, he purchased parcels of land on three sides of present-day College Terrace totaling 1,400 acres. He sent for his invalid wife, 11-year-old daughter, 5-year-old son and their governess, and he built for them a cottage, which he called Escondido.
Coutts began developing a working farm of the highest quality. By investing huge sums of money, five large wooden barns were built to house imported Ayrshire and Holstein dairy cows. Thousands of pounds of butter were churned monthly in the nearby brick dairy house.
Ayrshire Farm, as it was called, was so improved that by 1878 it was a showcase for the entire state, as reported in the November 1878 issue of the California Farmer. The reporter noted the farm's good pasture, orchards and especially the prized cattle, each in her own stall treated with the care normally reserved for the finest racehorses.
Coutts continued his development with the construction of a brick building to house his expensive book collection. Far from the center of his farm he had a brick tower built alongside Matadero Creek. This 50-foot tower remains today on Old Page Mill Road. Its purpose remains a mystery. Some have suggested it was built to support a water tank or as an aesthetic marker for one corner of his farm. Historian Dorothy Regnery believes it was probably a project to occupy his brick mason during an idle time. The romantics have promoted the idea that the tower was built as a bastion to protect his treasury of gold or his family against unknown foes.
This is where the real mystery of Peter Coutts began. After residing several years in the Santa Clara Valley, Coutts learned that the political climate in France had changed, and he began to investigate whether he could return safely to his homeland.
In 1880, he did return to France for a visit and cleared up the financial and legal problem that had clouded his name. Returning to California, he remained at Ayrshire Farm until 1882, when pressure from his homesick wife led him to abandon his home in California and move back to France. The farm continued to operate in his absence. The residents of neighboring Mayfield believed his departure was sudden, unplanned and full of intrigue. Stories of mysterious strangers identified as foreign agents appearing at his farm in the middle of the night fueled rumors that his departure was not voluntary. In the fall of 1882, Coutts instructed his representatives to arrange for the sale of his farm to Leland Stanford, who then added the property to his adjoining estate, the Palo Alto Stock Farm.
Peter Coutts' true identity remained a mystery for more than 40 years. In fact, even today, no photos of Coutts exist, at least ones that local historians can authenticate. Besides the brick tower, other traces of his presence can still be found, most notably Peter Coutts Road and Peter Coutts Circle, off Page Mill Road on the western side of his former property.
Yet much of Coutts' background remains a shadowy legend. In a 1925 interview, his granddaughter, Marguerite Caperon Berlin, revealed his true name and the story of his sad life after leaving California.
Returning to France, Coutts began building a chateau on Lake Geneva when his daughter died in 1885. In 1889, the still-grieving father died at the age of 67, leaving an estate valued at more than 7 million francs. His son married the niece of his former governess two years later. It was the son's daughter who visited the Stanford campus in 1953 to present the facts and correct the erroneous tales of her grandfather, known to us as Peter Coutts. Steve Staiger of the Palo Alto Historical Association writes "A Look Back" once every two months.